49ers now eyeing first playoff bye since 1997
After whipping the Washington Redskins 19-11 on Sunday to extend their best start and longest winning streak since 1997, the 49ers own a commanding five-game lead in the NFC West and could become division champions for the first time since 2002 in just two weeks from today if they keep winning and Arizona and Seattle both lose their next two games.
For seventh-year veteran Frank Gore and all the other 49ers who have never been to the playoffs, let alone on the cusp of a division title, clinching this month would be a thrill. San Francisco could secure a playoff berth by beating the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 20 at Candlestick Park if all parties cooperate.
But first the 49ers must get by the streaking New York Giants, who come to San Francisco on Sunday for a matchup of division leaders to kick off the second half of the NFL season.
The NFC East-leading Giants (6-2) are third behind the 49ers and unbeaten Green Bay Packers (8-0) in the current NFC pecking order, and Sunday's showdown represents one of the NFC's biggest games so far this season with serious playoff implications. The winner will be in the driver's seat for a first-round playoff bye.
That is the only game the one-week-at-a-time Niners are focusing on today. And they are intent on taking care of their own business.
''That'd be a big thing. One goal, we're trying not to let another team have to help us get to the playoffs – let us do that so we won't have to sit down Thursday or Monday night and hope for a team to win so this team's got to lose and all that,'' defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said Monday. ''We're trying to secure a playoff spot now so we don't have to worry about that later in the season.''
The 49ers appear to have little to worry about. Seven victories were enough to win the NFC West last year, and San Francisco already has more wins at midseason than it had all of last year during a disappointing 6-10 finish.
While first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh said last week he would look at the standings in December to determine how many wins his team still needed to reach its goal, he might not have to wait that long.
He could have the West won before that must-watch Thanksgiving showdown with his big brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens back East. San Francisco is 4-0 on the road for the first time since 1992, and all of those victories have come in the Eastern time zone. This marks the first time the 49ers have won at least four games with a 10 a.m. Pacific start in one season since 1990, when the team went 5-0 in such contests.
Stretching their winning streak to seven games this week would go a long way toward the Niners securing a first-round playoff bye for the first time since 1997, the last time San Francisco reached the NFC Championship game.
''If we beat the Giants and can get it, we'd be glad to have it,'' said Gore, who had his fifth consecutive 100-yard game against the Redskins but is nursing a sore left ankle. ''The Giants this week, they're a great team and they're coming here and we'll try to do whatever it takes to get a win.''
While Harbaugh's team is so close to being unbeaten at this stage – the 49ers' only loss was a 27-24 defeat in overtime to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2, a game San Francisco led 24-14 in the fourth quarter – he refuses to evaluate the progress so far.
''I really don't assess it. We would have liked to have been 8-0 at the midseason point,'' Harbaugh said Monday.
While Harbaugh admits that "this ball game is going to be a great test for our team," the 49ers continue to take their approach of not looking ahead beyond what's in front of them.
"We'll just kind of keep doing what we've been doing, and that's focusing on what's important now, having great expectation for today's game-planning, for tomorrow's meetings, tomorrow's workout, (then) Wednesday's practice," Harbaugh said. "That's the way we've been going about it. No need to look ahead, and have expectations because we didn't when we started. We didn't say ‘here's what our record needs to be at the mid-way point' or predicting what would happen or what the record would be. We just take care of what's important now. We've got a lot of questions to answer and keep asking ourselves and keep working toward a good game plan this week. That's what's important."
The 49ers were 2-6 at this point last season and are on the cusp of ending a string of eight consecutive seasons without a winning record or postseason berth.
Harbaugh on Sunday joined Jim Mora of the 2004 Atlanta Falcons as the only rookie head coaches to lead their team to a five-game improvement from the previous season through eight games since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.
''A lot of people doubted us, a lot of people put us out because we didn't have an offseason, we had a whole new staff, we're going to be lost and running around with our heads cut off,'' Francois said. ''But with the dedication and all the time everybody put aside to build it, we weren't going to have no lacking. We fell off one game with Dallas, but after that we just had to put everything together. We just feel like this is a team, it's not individual play no more. It's actually a team.''
Wide receiver Braylon Edwards experienced a strong start last season with the New York Jets, who won nine of their first 11 games. He believes his new team has only begun to reach its potential – a sentiment seconded by several of his teammates.
''We had already reached our peak,'' Edwards said in the locker room Sunday night. ''We had everything in place. We had been running an offense for a couple of years that was in place and we were at our peak. ... We're not anywhere near where we can be and that was the difference between here and (the Jets). We were already at our peak. We haven't come close.''
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